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Jack talks about this season


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Jack McKeon turns 75 on Nov. 23. He looks much younger and certainly doesn't act his age.


That might come as a shock to some because McKeon manages the Florida Marlins, and the way their season has been going, it could age a 35-year-old.


The Marlins, with a talented young pitching staff, arguably the best double-play combination in baseball and the addition of free agent first baseman Carlos Delgado, were expected to have a banner year ? even better than 2003, when as the National League wild card they stunned the New York Yankees to win the World Series.


After losing three out of four games to the Philadelphia Phillies last weekend, the Marlins entered Monday with a .500 record and were in last place in the tight NL East.


Frustrating season


Spend several hours with McKeon over breakfast, and it becomes obvious the storybook 2003 season is well in the past.


"I think the expectations were higher for all of us," he says. "When things don't fall into place, everybody gets frustrated.


"We have a great owner in Jeffrey Loria who loves to win, and you feel like you're letting him down even though you can't do anything about it."


McKeon says it's important to realize it's a 162-game schedule and "You're going to lose a lot of games."


When Loria gave Delgado a four-year, $52 million deal, expectations were ever higher.


"A lot of times when you get a big guy like Delgado, other people sit back and say, 'He'll carry us.' When we got him we thought this would be a plus to what we already have."


Ask McKeon how much longer he wants to manage, and there's no hesitation.


"I want to do it until I decide that I'm not having fun ? or as long as someone (Loria) wants me," he says.


Are you still having fun?


"Yes," he says. "But ask me in September."


If Loria hadn't made the bold move in May 2003 to replace good friend Jeff Torborg with the retired McKeon, the Marlins wouldn't have won the World Series.


McKeon taught them how to have fun ? and win.


His approach in 2003 was marvelous ? perfect for that season. Those same tactics didn't work last year when Florida missed the playoffs, finishing third behind the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia.


McKeon should not take the hit for one of the most underachieving teams in the majors this season.


His contract includes a clause in which, should he no longer manage, he's guaranteed a job in the front office for two or three years.


McKeon says he and Loria have an understanding. He's told the owner, "Anytime you don't like what I'm doing, anytime you think you're not happy, come up to me and I'll say, 'If you want somebody else, I'll walk away.' "


Offensive lag burdens pitchers


McKeon blames the disappointing first half on the lack of a consistent offense, even though the Marlins lead the NL in batting with a .274 average. Plus, they've outscored the opposition 408 to 406 runs.


But the Marlins have scored two or fewer runs in 31 of their 90 games, fourth in the majors.


"That's put a tremendous burden on our pitchers," McKeon says.


The Marlins bullpen has blown only eight saves but has recorded just 16, which ranks 15th among the 16 teams.


Injuries to the pitching staff ? 2003 World Series MVP Josh Beckett (8-6, 3.35 ERA) is on the disabled list for a second time ? have been a key reason for Florida's inconsistent play.


Free agent left-hander Al Leiter signed a one-year, $8 million contract, but he was unable to duplicate the magic he had had in a previous stint with the Marlins. After losing seven of 10 decisions, walking 60 batters in 80 innings and compiling a 6.64 ERA, he was dropped from the roster last week and traded to the New York Yankees.


Surprisingly, he allowed just three hits and one run into the seventh inning Sunday as the Yankees dropped the Boston Red Sox 5-3.


"Because of his experience, we'd hoped Al would give us 10, 12 or 15 wins," McKeon says. "Those things happen in the game. Al's a wonderful guy, a class guy and disappointed he wasn't more help to us. We just had to make that decision."


Plus, third baseman Mike Lowell, who is being mentioned in trade talks, was batting .227 with four homers and 36 RBI through Sunday. Outfielder Juan Pierre got off to a dreadful start but has improved his batting average to .272.


South Florida newspapers have reported that right-hander A.J. Burnett (5-6, 3.64 ERA), who was to start tonight against the Arizona Diamondbacks, might be traded to the Baltimore Orioles or the Chicago White Sox.


Delgado, on the other hand, has kept his end of the bargain, as have second baseman Luis Castillo (.319) and shortstop Alex Gonzalez (.279). Delgado was batting .296 with 18 homers and 69 RBI through Sunday.


"When we got Delgado, it was as if he automatically would carry us to the pennant," McKeon says. "As I've said, he's a great ballplayer, but you can't put that pressure on one player."


Even Loria says there's plenty of time for the Marlins to reach their potential. To him, how they play in August and September is key.


"We've still got plenty of time (72 games after Sunday)," McKeon says. "We have a good club and are hoping it's a matter of everything falling into place."


McKeon takes another sip of black coffee and almost philosophically says, "You never have as much fun when you're not winning. But it's still fun. When it gets to the time it's not fun, I'm going to get out."


One thing is certain: McKeon has meant so much to the Marlins that when it's time for him to leave he should be able to do it on his terms.



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